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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Inouye says fight not over yet on Akaka bill

 •  Hawaiians reassert unity

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

The push for federal recognition for Native Hawaiians is coming to a head this fall as proponents fight to have that status approved by Congress by the end of the current session.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, a leading champion of the Native Hawaiian Reorganization Act — the so-called Akaka bill — said he's planning to attach the legislation to one of the 12 appropriations bills still moving through Congress.

Congress might have little more than a month of lawmaking left, with pressure mounting to adjourn early before the general election, and the federal recognition bill is still languishing without a hearing on the Senate floor. It has been seen as a means to give Hawaiians a protected, political status that would derail lawsuits that challenge as unconstitutional programs or benefits targeting them.

The use of an appropriations package as a vehicle for the Akaka bill seems to be the only means left for its passage this session, because of the hold placed on it by the Senate's Republican leadership, Inouye said.

"I can't discuss the precise action we're going to take," Inouye said at the end of his session break in Hawai'i last week. "But in general, as of this moment, we have used every traditional means to pass this bill, going through committees and hearings, only to find that they (the Senate leadership) used an un-American method, a hold.

"Once they do that, you cannot move," Inouye said. "If they insist, I'm going to try to put it on an appropriations bill, and if they hold that, they hold up the government."

It would take political gamesmanship to make this work. Other senators could protest that the bill has not yet had a hearing in the House of Representatives and move to strip it out of the budget package, according to an Inouye staffer.

But as a member of the influential Senate Appropriations Committee, Inouye could trade support for certain budget items to keep the Hawaiian measure alive long enough to be considered by a Senate-House conference committee.

One reason Hawai'i lawmakers hear the clock ticking is that the appeal of one lawsuit challenging Hawaiian entitlements — Arakaki v. Lingle — is set for hearings in Honolulu Nov. 1. Having federal recognition approved by then, Inouye said, would make the lawsuit "moot."

The lawsuit claims that the use of state taxpayer money for programs benefiting Native Hawaiians only is unconstitutional.

The case was dismissed in U.S. District Court in January, when Judge Susan Oki Mollway ruled that Congress must first have the opportunity to decide on federal recognition.

The taxpayer group challenging Hawaiian benefits, such as those funded through the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to hear the case as quickly as possible, said its attorney, H. William Burgess.

Complicating all of this: The Akaka bill does not enjoy universal support, even among Native Hawaiians, some of whom believe it gives too much control over Hawaiian affairs to the U.S. Department of the Interior, the federal agency that oversees Native American tribes and Native Alaskan corporate entities.

The version of the bill currently under consideration was revised in May to let the secretary of the interior name those who would compile the membership rolls of a Native Hawaiian nation. This was among the provisions raising eyebrows among even some of the bill's supporters.

However, during last week's annual Native Hawaiian Conference at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, several community leaders assured participants that Hawaiians would be better off with some kind of bill in place, one that always could be revised in coming years.

"All legislation is a creative process," U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie told the gathering at its closing luncheon on Friday. "It's amended as experience indicates."

It was partly aversion to federal control of the nation-building process that spurred a grassroots Native Hawaiian registration drive dubbed Kau Inoa. Clyde Namu'o, administrator of the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, told conferees last week that the drive is funded through OHA but that forms are being handled independently by the Native Hawaiian nonprofit Hawai'i Maoli.

No matter how Native Hawaiians feel about federal recognition, he said, they should take part in the registration.

"It's our participation in that process that will make it credible," he said. "Shame on us if we don't find a way to bring them all in as we build a Hawaiian government entity."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.